As you watch this remake about the rise and fall of a populist Louisiana politician in the first half of the 20th century, you might get the sense that you've entered one of Randy Newman's many great songs about the place and period. It is far less likely, though, that you'll feel you've encountered a great motion picture.
Steven Zaillian, who wrote the scripts for Schindler's List and Gangs of New York, among other films, determined he was up to writing and directing a new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer-winning 1946 novel, a book already made into an Oscar-winning picture in '49. He's likely to think twice before going anywhere near a movie camera again.
All the King's Men was originally scheduled for release quite some time ago. Rumors about trouble with the movie have been circulating around Hollywood ever since. As it turns out, they were well founded. Rarely has such esteemed source material been so underserved.
Penn acts up a storm. Unfortunately, his performance is mostly wind. As Willie Stark, a teetotalling parish treasurer who morphs into a bourbon-guzzling lech of a governor, he flails and bellows. He gesticulates and hollers. With a script that doesn't provide him with much of interest to do, he comes off as more of a caricature than a charismatic leader.
The film has a number of serious problems, but none is more problematic than Zaillian's screenplay. Two hours after being introduced to the film's central character, the viewer is unlikely to have much more insight into him than he or she did while watching the opening credits.
Jude Law costars as jaded journalist Jack Burden, whom Stark makes his righthand man as he campaigns, successfully, for governor. Law narrates the story in a world-weary Southern drawl from some point in the future that clearly has been preceded by tragedy - the kind that reveals things you'd rather not have known about humanity.
He recounts the early days of their association. A shady backroom operative played by James Gandolfini sweet-talks Stark, a door-to-door salesman, into running for office. He neglects to inform him that he'll be campaigning as nothing more than a spoiler. When Burden tips the candidate off, Stark's indignation produces an overnight transformation. Stark is the oratorical equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. One minute he's giving mumbly stump speeches in which he fumbles with scribbled pie charts; the next he's raging with the eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. against the lousy hand the state's "hicks" have been dealt by the rich and powerful.
That's the first sign of the kind of trouble this movie will have the rest of the way through. Zaillian directs the film as though he's trying to fit it in on his lunch hour. Nothing in the picture develops subtly or with appropriate pacing. Rather, the movie lurches from one plot point to the next, in some cases shoving major shifts in character into the space of a single edit.
And I'm not quibbling about minor characters - of which there are plenty, and with which little is done. I'm talking about the movie's main figure, and the shift that is the very point of the picture. One minute Stark is a man of the people pushing an agenda based on building schools, roads and hospitals. The next, he's a bloated blackmailer, an elected official whose dirty tricks threaten to bring about his impeachment.
There is literally nothing in between. The viewer is left to wonder whether the theater projectionist has misplaced a pivotal reel. The effect is tremendously disorienting. Personality traits and conspiracies materialize out of nowhere. No sooner does the audience catch on to the fact that Penn's character has allowed himself to be corrupted by the power of his office than peripheral characters start shooting themselves - and others. And then, just like that, the film is over.
Here are some of the many fine actors who will not be receiving award nominations for their work: Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins and, of course, Penn. Never have so many approached Southern accents from such a variety of directions, with so little verisimilitude to show for their efforts.
Penn's performance is technically convincing. The actor clearly put his heart and soul into the role. It's what Zaillian left out that prevents All the King's Men from being all it might have been.